When I finally decided to commit to being a writer, rather than just saying I liked writing, I didn’t have a lot of great ideas about what to practically do. I was looking for guidance and ideas, and I was living far from home in a big city where I didn’t know people. So I did what seemed logical at the time: I joined a (mostly fiction) writing group. Just a casual one, where people met up to write in proximity to each other, then have a chat afterwards about writing. Innocent enough.
Now, after several years, I have stopped attending my group. Not because they aren’t still going strong, but because I now realise I need something more specific: support, and a sense of having peers. While the group was nice, it wasn’t those things. And it being NaNoWriMo, what better time to take a minute to reflect on what writing groups often do to their own writers? I made great friends, but I didn’t find people with whom to push my actual writing abilities. So what, in the end, can you reasonably expect from a writing group where anyone can attend?
You’ll find more introverts
I’m an introvert and finding other introverts is tricky at the best of times — we’re introverted, after all, and don’t massively put ourselves out there if we don’t have to. So a great way of finding others like me was to go join an activity that is normally quite solitary, like writing. It’s a powerful thing to realise that you are definitely not the only one, in this world that spends much of its attention on extraverts.
You will have additional motivation to work
This isn’t so much an issue for me these days, because I’ve built up a habit of writing every day. But when I first committed to this path, that definitely wasn’t the case — I hardly wrote, because it was scary and difficult. Having a defined time and place in which I was forced to sit and write became a really vital first step in developing my ability to sit for long periods and actually get the work done. It kept me accountable, it kept me consistent.
You can find others who share your passion
By far the best thing to have come out of my attendance at various fiction writing groups is that I have made some friends who really share my passion for the written word. I am proud and happy to call these people my closest friends, and I owe writing groups a hell of a lot for helping one random foreigner finally crack the friendship code in London.
A lot of people are not that serious about writing
An open writing group will attract people who aren’t actually that committed to writing. This is fine if they don’t bother you, but it is a thing to be aware of. While I found great friends, I don’t have a group of peers with whom I can confide on my writing — we never quite achieved that. So while my friendship needs were satisfied, my desire to improve as a writer definitely wasn’t.
There are always people looking to put you down
It’s a stereotype of the MFA that there’s always that one guy who chats big and annoys everyone with their egomania. Well, that guy is in every writing group too. He’ll be there, ready to tell you how superior his writing is and how boring yours is. How they’ve ‘already been published’, or to say things like, ‘What, you haven’t even been published yet?’ Just take a break, annoying writer person. We are all doing our own thing.
So be warned: if you’re not yet super confident in what you do, you have to ignore or avoid that person. And they will be there, in every open writing group, waiting to tell you how they don’t fancy your writing at all. Feedback you may not need or be ready for, that you almost certainly didn’t ask for, and that may not even be true. Words designed to try to put you down, for twisted ego and writing groups go together, hand in hand.
Plenty of people just want to show off
A natural follow on is that talking about writing incites insecurities in people — it is, after all, quite a vulnerable act to write something and put it out into the world. Many people will compensate for this fear of their vulnerability biting them on the arse by showing off about how great they themselves think they are. Or how their idea is way more out there than yours. They want to play the comparison game, and they’re reacting to insecurities by wanting to prove themselves.
It’s a competition only crap writers want to play though, so don’t get caught up. If you’re a writer of any worth, you know what it is you’re hoping to achieve and you don’t feel the need to play the comparison game for the entertainment of others. You do you.
Plenty of people don’t know anything about writing
The biggie: most people in an open writing group are coming from either very different careers, day jobs, and very different levels of experience with fiction writing. There’s always that guy or gal who thinks that because they attended one workshop once, they are the authority on how writing gets done. Probably not.
Lots of bad information about how you must write gets spread through these groups; I personally do not believe there are a lot of ‘rules’, so when I hear ‘you must do x and y to write a good story’, I’m immediately prickly. Of course there are things you can say about characters, about plot, about voice, but the reality is that there are infinitely different ways to achieve a story. And what is ‘good’ is very often in the eye of the beholder. So take the advice offered in an open writing group with a grain of salt; chances are that your instincts about what works are just as relevant, if you’re indeed actually dedicated to the craft itself.
I think it’s infinitely better to find the awesome writer people, and start your own group. If feedback is what you’re after, this works so much better with an intimate group who know your work and you theirs. If it’s just a sense of community you’re after, being selective about what you call your writing community isn’t a bad thing — after all, do you really want to leave yourself exposed to toxic writers? I personally don’t; I’ve worked too hard and too long at my craft, I’m not interested in what one egomaniac at a writing group thinks is the gospel. But maybe you are curious, in which case an open writing group is definitely worth the punt — you will learn a lot, and quickly, about where you stand in your views on writing well.
So join a group with caution: embrace the new connections, find some cool people, and don’t listen to the inevitable competition-trap person, who is looking to take others down with their own insecurities. Your craft is yours to work on, at your pace. Good luck!